Grave Story: Fred Toney (1888-1953)

Here lies Fred Toney, who is probably best remembered today as the winning pitcher of baseball’s only double no-hit game. But that wasn’t even the best game he ever pitched. In a 12-year career in the majors, Toney played for the Chicago Cubs (1911-1913), Cincinnati Reds (1915-18), New York Giants (1918-22) and St. Louis Cardinals (1923).

Fred Alexandra Toney was born in Nashville on December 11, 1888, the son of John and Alice (Krantz) Toney. John Toney was a steamboat builder who died when Fred was about 10 years old. His mother would later remarry a man named Charles Vester. The family lived on a farm by White’s Creek Pike in Tennessee. It wasn’t good farming land, but it was apparently a good place for a fledgling pitcher to develop his throwing arm.

Fred Toney’s grave at Spring Hill Cemetery, in Nashville.

According to lore (and his minor-league teammate P.J. Campbell), Toney learned how to pitch by hunting rabbits on his property, armed with rocks. “Toney’s home is down at Bald Knob, Tenn., which is reported to be one of the best rabbit countries in the South, and Campbell says that all Toney ever needed to kill more rabbits than any other nimrod in his section of the state was a few dogs to jump the rabbits, and he would kill them with rocks,” reported The Chattanooga News in 1909.

If baseball’s tall tales are true, Toney wasn’t the first pitcher to perfect his skills by picking off small animals with rocks. Wiley “The Tennessee Squirrel Hunter,” Davis, who pitched for Cincinnati in 1896, was said to have honed his control by knocking squirrels out of trees with rocks.

Toney started pitching in 1906 with the Free Silver Team, an amateur club in Nashville, when he was 18 years old. According to a 1909 article written by Blue Grass League umpire Cliff Rasch, Toney was 22-1 in that first season, and that one defeat was a 2-1 loss played in a steady rain. Following that successful debut, he went to the Chick Neal team in Nashville and was undefeated in 1907. That 18-0 record included a 5-3, 12-inning victory over the Telephone Club, in which he struck out 15 batters.

Toney played briefly for Bowling Green in 1908 and won 8 out of 10 games before entering the Blue Grass League with the Winchester Hustlers. Rasch reported that he struggled in professional ball at first, losing 7 of his 11 games.

Source: Library of Congress

And then came 1909. That season has at least partial statistics on Baseball Reference, so we know that Toney had a 22-15 record in 49 games. His best game – and maybe the best professional baseball game ever pitched – was a 17-inning no-hitter against the Lexington Colts on May 10, 1909. Toney struck out 19 batters in the process. Big-league teams lined up to sign Toney, making offers as high as $2,600 for Winchester to release him. However, it never happened, and it’s not clear why. One report stated that Toney’s delivery was a little awkward – to be expected from someone who never had formal pitching instruction. More likely, Winchester’s ownership knew Toney represented a huge payday and held onto him tightly, waiting for the right deal. Philadelphia of the National League apparently did sign Toney in July of 1909, with the provision that they would bring him to the majors if they were in contention by the end of the season. They Phillies finished with a sub-.500 record, 36-1/2 games behind the pennant-winning Pirates, so Toney finished the season in Winchester. He spent all of 1910 there as well, winning 23 games with a 2.26 ERA.

Finally, In November of 1910, it was announced that Toney had signed with the Chicago Cubs. Cubs President Charles Murphy had not seen Toney pitch, but he knew the type of pitcher he wanted: a big, imposing right-hander with a good fastball and curveball, in the manner of Ed Walsh or Walter Johnson. Toney, who stood 6’2” and weighed nearly 200 pounds, fit the bill, and scout George Huff pried him away from Winchester.

For all the hype surrounding Toney, the Cubs never gave him a fair chance. He spent three seasons bouncing between Chicago and Louisville of the American Association, and when he did pitch for the Cubs, he was mostly used as a reliever. In his major-league debut, he started against the Cardinals on a cold and dreary April 15 and lasted just 2-2/3 innings. In that short time, he gave up 3 runs, 4 hits, 5 walks and a hit batsman. Manager Frank Chance yanked him in the middle of an at-bat, after he had loaded the bases and thrown a ball to Miller Huggins.

Toney’s best game in 1911 came when he relieved Mordecai Brown after 2 innings in a 4-1 loss on June 9. Over the final 7 shutout innings, the big pitcher allowed just 2 hits and a walk, striking out 4 batters. He picked up his first career win with an 8-2 complete game against the Boston Rustlers on July 27. None of those good performances helped him get any more playing time. He had a 1-1 record with the Cubs in 18 games, including 4 starts. He threw just 67 innings for the Cubs. He also won 10 games for the Louisville Colonels in 29 games.

Toney’s 1912 and ’13 seasons were less successful. He pitched in a total of 63 innings for the Cubs in those two years and had a 5.71 ERA to show for it. The Chicago Record-Herald hinted at the problem in a 1912 article. Chance favored pitcher with an overhand delivery, and Toney’s greatest success in Winchester came with an underhanded fastball. He tried to adjust his delivery to Chance’s demands, but his overhand pitches were no match for NL competition. Toney was given permission to go to his underhanded style more often, but he didn’t see much success in Chicago regardless of how he pitched. He was released outright to Louisville on July 1, 1913, as new Cubs skipper Johnny Evers just didn’t see him as major-league material. His tenure with the Cubs resulted in a 4-5 record and 4.02 ERA in 34 games, 11 of which were starts. Toney spent the next year and a half with the Colonels, racking up 21 wins in 1914 against 15 losses. His ERA was 3.21, and he struck out 152 batters in 311 innings.

A graphic depicting the supposed end of Fred Toney’s career, after he was arrested on charges of attempting to evade getting drafted.

The Cubs may have given up on the big pitcher, but there were plenty of others who were willing to take a chance on him. Toney was drafted away from Louisville by Brooklyn, but he failed to sign. Charles Ebbets released Toney after he declared the team “too cheap,” making him a free agent. Pittsburgh of the Federal League made a run at him, but it was the Cincinnati Reds that ended up with Toney’s services in 1915. He showed the Cubs – and the rest of the National League – just what he was capable of doing, as he turned into one of the league’s most dominant pitchers. He had a 17-6 record for the seventh-place Reds with a 1.58 ERA, second only to Pete Alexander’s 1.22 mark for best in the NL. He allowed just 160 hits in 222-2/3 innings and struck out 108 batters. What had changed? Zack Wheat, a Hall of Fame outfielder for Brooklyn, said that Toney had a good fastball with the Cubs, but it was about all he had, so batters knew what to expect from him.

“Where he got it I don’t know, but when he bobbed up with the Reds you would not have known it was the same man,” Wheat said. “He had five or six styles, all sorts of deceptive motions, and as good a change of pace as there is in the National League. Side-arm, overhand and under-hand were all the same to him. Instead of that constant fast ball, he had half a dozen speeds. He seldom used the fast one, except just often enough to stand a batter on his head whom he had figured that Toney had no such thing.”

Wheat predicted Toney wouldn’t be a fluke, and he was right. The Reds pitcher had a sub-.500 record of 14-17 in 1916 – Cincinnati finished with a 60-93-2 record in seventh place – but his ERA was just 2.28, and he fanned a career-best 146 in 300 innings. He had established himself as one of the best pitchers in the league, along with Alexander, but he was reportedly unhappy with the Reds’ losing ways. The Reds, under manager Christy Mathewson, improved to a .500 ballclub in 1917, and Toney had his best season – 24 wins, 2.20 ERA, 123 strikeouts, 31 complete games and 7 shutouts. He saved his best for a May 2 game against the Chicago Cubs.

The Reds had traveled to Chicago to face the Cubs at Weeghman Park (aka Wrigley Field). Toney and Cubs pitcher Jim “Hippo” Vaughn started putting up zeros on the scoreboard. Toney allowed the first baserunner in the bottom of the second when he walked Cy Williams, but he was stranded there. Vaughn was throwing the ball by the Reds and finished the day with 10 strikeouts. Toney, by comparison, wasn’t unhittable. He only struck out 3 batters, but all the Cubs could do were hit grounders and fly balls that didn’t leave the infield. Toney got through the ninth inning by getting 2 pop-ups and a grounder to third base. As the Reds trotted off the field, Toney and Vaughn had completed the one-and-only double 9-inning no-hitter in baseball history. The game moved onto the tenth inning in a 0-0 tie.

Vaughn retired Cincinnati’s Gus Getz on a pop to the catcher before he gave up the first base hit of the ballgame, to Larry Kopf. Greasy Neal flied out to center field for the second out, and Hal Chase did the same. However, center fielder Williams muffed Chase’s fly for an error, and Kopf raced to third base. Chase promptly stole second base, putting two runners in scoring position for Cincinnati right fielder Jim Thorpe. The former Olympian hit a grounder up the third base line that Vaughn corralled, but Thorpe was so fast that Vaughn didn’t think that he had a play at first. So Vaughn threw to catcher Art Wilson to try and stop Kopf from scoring. However, his threw bounced off Wilson’s shoulder, and Kopf scored the first run of the game. Chase tried to score as well, but Wilson was able to recover the ball and tagged Chase out. Toney took the mound in the bottom of the tenth inning. Larry Doyle struck out to open the inning, Fred Merkle flew out to left, and Williams struck out to end the ballgame. Toney kept that last ball for the rest of his life.

It wasn’t the only pitching feat Toney accomplished in 1917. On July 1, he threw both ends of a doubleheader in Cincinnati, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates twice, 4-1 and 5-1. Both games were 3-hitters, establishing 6 hits as the lowest hit total a pitcher ever allowed while working both ends of a doubleheader.

The good times ended badly for Toney. On December 23, 1917, he and Davidson County (Tenn.) assessor Jesse Webb were arrested on charges of conspiracy to violate Section 6 of the Selective Service Act. Federal prosecutors accused the two of allowing Toney to evade the draft with a false exemption. Toney claimed that his wife, 5-year-old daughter, mother, stepfather, invalid sister and young niece were all dependent upon him for a living. Webb, in his role, was adamant that Toney be exempted from military service, and the local board turned the entire affair over the U.S. District Attorney Lee Douglas.

“If the government will show me some way that my people can be taken care of I am happy to go to war tomorrow,” Toney said in his defense. “Ever since I got into baseball – even before that – I have kept up my family.”

The government did its level best to ruin Toney’s reputation and career in the ensuing trial. Douglas found that Toney’s wife and child didn’t even live with him but rather lived with her mother in Gallatin, where she had been employed by Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph as an operator.

Source: Daily News, July 14, 1929.

One of his witnesses, Toney’s landlady, acknowledged that the woman who lived with Toney was actually a woman named Gladys Strange, who was not Mrs. Fred Toney. She and other witnesses testified that Toney spent lavishly on Ms. Strange and intended to marry her, though he had been unable to get a divorce from his wife. The real Mrs. Fred Toney, Alice, testified that she was sent about $70 per month by her estranged husband, though she wasn’t aware of the fact that he’d moved in with another woman. Many of Toney’s family members testified on his behalf, stating that they were dependent on his income for their livelihoods.

The proceedings ended in a mistrial, with nine members of the jury voting for a conviction and three for acquittal. Toney was to stand trial again in September of 1918. But before that trial, Toney was able to pitch, and so he returned to the Reds… at least for a time.

Toney returned to the Reds on May 5 with a 3-1 complete game win over Pittsburgh. He won his first five decisions before going on an 8-game losing streak. The Reds sold him to the New York Giants on July 22, and he had a 6-10 record at the time. Toney lost his first two starts with his new team before winning his next 6 decisions. He finished the year with a 12-12 record and 2.43 ERA, but he was brilliant for the Giants – a 6-2 record and 1.69 ERA for his new team, in fact. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to help the Giants into the postseason, as the Cubs cruised to the NL pennant, with the Giants 10-1/2 games back. Even more unfortunately, Toney had to face his second trial after the season ended. This time around, he was acquitted of draft evasion but was sentenced to four months in prison for violating the Mann Act. The Act, a “white slavery” law, theoretically punished prostitution and human trafficking by prohibiting taking women across state lines for immoral purposes. It was also used as a way of punishing interracial relationships, such as the conviction of black boxer Jack Johnson in 1912 for dating white women. But this enforcement of the Mann Act was punishing Toney for living with a woman who was not his legal wife. He later got his divorce and married Gladys Strange, also known as Goldie, in 1919, and the two remained married until his death.

While in prison, Toney gave a statement to the Nashville Banner that he had retired from the game. “I think I have just as good an arm as ever hung on a man’s body, but less brains than any man in the entire league. And I think the cause of all my trouble was for lack of education and the kind of people I associated with.” By the time of his release, he had changed his mind. He rejoined the Giants in May of 1919 and made his first start on May 31. He lost that game to Brooklyn, but his third start of the season was a shutout win over the Cubs on June 14. From there to the end of the season, Toney was back to his dominant self and finished the year with a 13-6 record and 1.84 ERA. His fastball was no longer overpowering, as he only struck out 40 in 181 innings. But he showed that his time as a guest of the state of Tennessee hadn’t eroded his skills.

Toney was 31 years old in 1920, and with his troublesome past behind him, he was able to focus fully on baseball for the first time in two seasons. McGraw hoped that his three pitching aces of Toney, Art Nehf and Phil Douglas would be enough to vault the Giants past Cincinnati and claim the NL pennant. “I have always contended that the pitching staff makes up about 60 percent of the strength of a team and I believe our pitchers are ready to hold their own with any staff in the league,” he said. Toney’s bag of tricks included by then a “fadeaway,” known now as a screwball.

New York once again finished in second place, as McGraw’s starters were very good, but not quite great. Toney started 37 games for New York in 1920, along with 5 relief appearances, and he finished the year with a 21-11 record and 2.65 ERA. He proved to be just a little more hittable than he had been in years past, though his control was still excellent – 57 walks in 278-1/3 innings. He also couldn’t escape controversy, though he wasn’t guilty of anything this time. In September, he was asked to testify in a game-fixing scandal. Former Giants Hal Chase and Heinie Zimmerman, as well as ex-Cub Lee Magee were accused of conspiring to fix baseball games, and Zimmerman had approached ex-teammates Toney and Benny Kauff to throw games. Toney and Kauff both reported the offer to McGraw and Giants owner Horace Stoneham, and neither men were implicated in anything illegal.

After finishing in second place repeatedly, the New York Giants finally won the National League pennant in 1921. They were led by four Hall of Famers in the starting lineup – High Pockets Kelly, Frankie Frisch, Ross Youngs and Dave Bancroft. Art Nehf won 20 games, and Jesse Barnes added 15 wins and led the team with a 3.10 ERA. Toney went 18-11 with a 3.61 ERA, but batters hit .289 against him, with 14 home runs. He had an ERA+ of 103, meaning he was slightly above a league-average pitcher. His only shutout of the season came against Pittsburgh on September 16 and helped to sink the Pirates’ pennant hopes. Toney took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before giving up a couple of base hits. He also contributed to the 5-0 win with a 2-run single. Toney was never a great hitter, but he did hit the only 3 home runs of his career in 1921 and finished the year with a career-high 12 RBIs.

Fred Toney, with his wife Goldie and two granddaughters, listens to a radio broadcast depicting his 1917 double no-hitter. Source: Nashville Banner, June 24, 1950.

The Giants faced the Yankees in the World Series, and Toney was ineffective in his two starts. He started Game Three and ended the first inning with a flourish, striking out Babe Ruth. However, the Yankees tagged him for four runs in the third inning, and Ruth chased him from the game with a bases-loaded single that scored two runs. Toney didn’t make it out of the first inning in Game Six. Bob Meusel drove in a run with a single, and Aaron Ward singled in two more runs, forcing McGraw to yank his starter. In both games, Jesse Barnes came in from the bullpen and held the Yankees in check long enough for the Giants to come back and win the games. They also won the World Series, 5 games to 3. Barnes was one of the heroes for his stellar relief work. Toney’s performance showed McGraw that the pitcher was past his prime.

McGraw spent the offseason and the start of the next season trying to retool his pitching staff, and he found what he was looking for with Boston Braves’ ace Hugh McQuillan. He acquired McQuillan on July 31, 1922, in exchange for $100,000 cash, minor leaguers Harry Hulihan and Larry Benton, and Fred Toney. The veteran pitcher had continued to deteriorate with the Giants in 1922. Toney posted a 5-6 record and 4.17 ERA at the time of the trade, and he had struck out just 10 batters while walking 31 in 86-1/3 innings.

Toney never pitched a game with the Braves. He vowed to quit baseball after being dealt to the floundering Braves and was placed on the voluntarily retired list. Toney was claimed by the St. Louis Cardinals in August of 1922 but wasn’t able to report to the team until the following spring. He came to camp in excellent shape after an offseason spent hunting, and he vowed revenge against his old Giants team. He had some good performances with the Cardinals, winning 11 games and throwing nearly 200 innings. The last shutout of his career was a brilliant 1-0 game against the Cubs, where he outdueled Pete Alexander while throwing a 4-hitter. But his stuff was no longer fooling batters the way it used to, and his ERA of 3.84 was just a little better than league average. He failed to get any revenge against the Giants, as they beat him 3 times in 5 starts.

Toney was released by Cardinals manager Branch Rickey in April of 1924. While it was likely that Toney could still be reasonably effective for some team, he elected to retire and go back to Tennessee instead.

In his 12 seasons in the majors, Toney had a 139-102 record and a 2.69 ERA. He started 271 of his 336 games and threw 158 complete games, including 28 shutouts. He also picked up 12 saves along the way, including a league-leading 3 in 1918. He struck out 718 batters and walked 583. Toney’s ERA+ is 113, and Baseball Reference credits him with 25.8 Wins Above Replacement.

Toney signed with the Nashville Vols of the Southern Association in 1925. He won 4 games and showed flashes of his major-league stuff, but he retired from the game – again – and went back to his White Creek farm in June.

During the final years of his pitching career, he was thought of as a good tutor for young pitchers, and he expressed some interest in getting back into the game as a pitching coach in the 1930s. “I’ve always regretted that I quit [in 1923] because I was good for five or six more years,” he said in a 1938 interview. By then, he had sold off his farm and spent his time hunting. “I’ve been trying to get on the Nashville police force, but that has just about fallen through,” he said in a 1936 interview. “If I can’t make that I want to start dickering for a coaching job.” Toney had been away from the game for too long, and he couldn’t find a coaching job. After being out of work for several years, he finally landed his policeman’s job in Nashville, working in Judge Charles Gilbert’s Davidson County Criminal Court.

Fred and Goldie Toney at Spring Hill Cemetery.

Late in life, Toney had the rare opportunity to listen to a broadcast of his best game. Nashville radio announcer Gordon McClendon gave a reenactment of the Toney-Vaughn double no-hitter in 1949, and Toney was able to listen to the game. “It was almost as if I was pitching in Chicago 33 years ago and listening to a description of that actually happened,” Toney said. He listened to the final outs on his radio with his wife and grandchildren with him – and the battered baseball that was the final out of that game was in his hand.

Fred Toney died at his home on Brick Church Pike in Nashville on March 11, 1953, from heart disease. He was 64 years old. He is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville.

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